to Repeat It
rock is the past and classic rock the future for FM radio
stations bent on capturing the most lucrative demographic
Recently I found myself having a conversation with
my radio. As a 20-something, I have begun to feel a bit
alienated by my radio. So I said, “Radio,” I said, “Radio.
. . . I thought we had a deal. Sure, it was a long time
ago and I was young and naïve, but nevertheless, I thought
we had agreed. I wouldn’t complain about that Alice in
Chains song you play to death. I would put up with the
Stainds and the Creeds of the world, and the fourth-generation
grunge that dominated your airwaves. I would simply cringe
while you played Good Charlotte. I would praise you on
those rare occasions when you played a song by a new band
that actually deserved to be heard, and in return I would
never, ever, ever, ever have to hear Journey again. But
that’s all over now! Isn’t it?”
You may have noticed it, too. “Classic” old rock is eating
up the airwaves, insidiously chewing up and spitting out
the modern-rock and -pop stations of the area. And why
is that? Why is modern music dying? Frankly, because it
sucks. No, I’m not saying all new music is bad. Only the
inoffensive drivel the new-music radio stations will take
a risk on playing.
I’m talking to you,
I mean, let’s be honest here. There are not a whole lot
of people running out to follow Trapt around on their
world tour, and I don’t know anyone claiming to be a Bizkithead.
In my disappointment, I decided to continue my conversation
with some of the people responsible for my radio’s failure
to keep up its end of the deal.
Explains Shawn Murphy of Q103, the ’80s-rock-formatted
station that was once the modern-rock station the Edge,
“New music is not as a good as it used to be. It doesn’t
have the appeal it used to have. It used to be that on
a modern-rock station, eight or nine of the A-listers
were playing arenas. Now, active rock’s A list are playing
Murphy notes that active-rock and alternative-rock stations
are disappearing all over the country. And John Cooper,
station manager of classic-rock mainstay PYX 106, agrees.
Says Cooper, “There hasn’t been a good solid rock rebirth
since grunge. There has been some good stuff, but I don’t
think there’s been quantity and quality.”
Realizing that there are good reasons not to play modern
rock, I decided I could forgive my radio a bit. But still,
I wondered, why not just play hiphop, rap or R&B—the
stuff the kids are really into?
According to a recent article in Rolling Stone,
classic rock is big with the kids. Suddenly rock artists
from the ’60s to the ’80s are chic. The article explained
that a whole generation of teens are discovering their
parents’ rock albums. Since Rolling Stone hasn’t
exactly been in touch with the youth culture for some
time, I thought I better do my own poking around.
There are some signs that would seem to corroborate Rolling
Stone’s opinion. If you go to a Hot Topic, the corporately
packaged home of rebellion, latex and mascara, right next
to the Atreyu shirts and the Slipknot jackets, you will
see Rolling Stones T-shirts, Iron Maiden wrist bands and
Jimi Hendrix caps. Go ahead. Go! I’ll wait.
OK, now that you’re back, now that you’ve seen it, isn’t
there something a little suspicious about this? Something
a little creepy? Is there really a new wave of interest
in classic rock among teens? Let’s be honest here, folks.
Classic rock is called classic rock because it is a staple,
because it is something that transcends generations, something
that people of generation after generation pick up and
discover. Classic rock is not the underdog, and it has
not been for a while, if it ever was. Don’t act surprised
that teens are digging Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones,
Queen, or even Boston. These are bands who have a solid
corporate image, who have become a part of the rock canon.
Have things radically changed? No. Today’s teens are simply
keeping up on their musical vocabulary.
So why are there Stones shirts in Hot Topic? Because the
Stones know how to cash in.
And so do radio stations. Classic-rock radio stations
are not shooting for the youth market. Would they be glad
to see a sudden taste revolution, with teens trading in
their 50 Cent CDs for the Eagles? Of course they would.
However, they are quite satisfied with the market they
already have, and that is why more and more stations are
looking for a piece of it.
Cooper explains that since the ’70s, the rock market has
undergone a number of fragmentations of style. “With each
fragmentation,” he says, “there was less of an audience
for rock.” Therefore, rock stations that focus on the
’60s, ’70s and even the ’80s are still more likely to
have a wider, more encompassing reach than any modern-rock
Says Murphy, “There is a contingent of listeners who want
to hear new music, but there aren’t enough of them to
make it happen. The bottom line is, radio is a business.”
And it seems that business is good, because the audience
for stations like PYX and Q103 is not teens who blow their
allowances on video games. These stations are marketing
to well-established folks with mortgages, large paychecks
and 401ks. People, as Cooper explains, who are “between
35 and 55 years old. A broad range, a lot of people that
have kids, married people with children that listen in
Who would want to advertise to these financially secure
people? Beer companies and car dealerships, that’s who.
Says Murphy, “We’re reaching out to people who spent high
school and college in the ’80s. People who want to reach
this demographic are generally beverage companies—beer
companies are big. The demo lends itself to car dealers.
These are people who now have more and more disposable
income each and every year. High-end vehicles, oftentimes
investment firms, because people who spent their high
school years in the ’80s are more prone to prepare for
So with all the industry talk out of the way, I had just
one question for the guys who make my radio tick: How
hard does your station rock? Since PYX and Q103 focus
on music from slightly different eras, I presented two
different-but-equal scales to compare them. On a scale
of Aerosmith as the lightest, Led Zeppelin as medium rockage
and Black Sabbath as bash-your-brains-in heavy, Cooper
was not willing to pinpoint his station’s hardrockingness.
However, he did note that his audience enjoys the “meat
and potatoes” rock—the hits from Zeppelin and Aerosmith.
On a scale from Journey as not-so-much rock, solo Ozzy
Osbourne as medium rockitude and Iron Maiden as complete
hard-rock, thrashing pandemonium, Murphy said his station
rocks in at about solo Ozzy.
My radio and I are doing better lately—we have come to
The kids these days are not getting their music from the
radio. They are getting it from Bittorrent, Soulseek and
iTunes, and they are listening to it on their iPods. Radio
is playing what it needs to play to keep its base audience.
It is doing what it has to do to survive.
My radio has its interests, and I have mine, but that
doesn’t mean we can’t get together from time to time.
I don’t ask it to play me the new Flaming Lips single
and it doesn’t try to make me listen to Puddle of Mud.
And on those lazy summer days, while cleaning the car
or hanging around in the park, it will be there for me,
letting me hear Bowie’s “Changes” or Sabbath’s “Iron Man”
roll through the speakers in metallic waves and out into
the summer breeze one more time.